By Richie Unterberger
When John Stewart moved from Capitol to Warner Brothers in the early 1970s, he was joining the label with possibly the strongest singer-songwriter roster in the history of the genre. James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Eric Andersen, Arlo Guthrie, John Sebastian, Randy Newman, and Tom Paxton were all on Warners or its sister label Reprise. Whether because Warners was over-extended or there was no label that could have effectively maximized so much talent at once, not all of them got to sell large numbers of records, despite getting their share of critical plaudits. Stewart was one such figure, releasing just two LPs on Warners before going on his way again, this time to RCA.
Still, those records did give Stewart the opportunity to further explore the brand of Americana that had characterized his work since the Kingston Trio disbanded and he started his solo career in the late 1960s. The Lonesome Picker Rides Again, the first of his pair of Warners albums (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), was symptomatic of singer-songwriter folk-rock's wider reach as the movement coasted into the 1970s. It combined not just folk and rock, but also country, blues, and even a bit of gospel.
His second and final Warners effort, Sunstorm, would boast a similar stew, though this time around the gospel ingredients in particular would be much more to the fore. That's especially evident on tracks like "Bring It on Home," "Drive Again," and "Light Come Shine." "My '50s rock'n'roll days were a big influence on some of these tunes," Stewart explains, "as was the gospel music of the Staple Singers, who I learned about from Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio back in the '60s." Should those seem like unlikely influences, it should be remembered that like many '60s folkies, Stewart had gone through a rock'n'roll phase before going acoustic, playing in the rock'n'roll band the Furies in high school. And the Staple Singers, who were big soul stars by the early 1970s, had started in gospel music, and were big attractions on the folk circuit at the peak of the folk revival.
As on The Lonesome Picker Rides Again, a large crew of musicians was assembled to back Stewart on the sessions. This time around, though, the crew was even bigger and possibly more illustrious. Musical arranger and pianist Glen D. Hardin was playing and arranging in Elvis Presley's band at the time. Also playing in Presley's band at the time were legendary session guitarist James Burton (most famous for his work on Ricky Nelson's classic hits) and bassist Jerry Scheff (who also played on the Doors' L.A. Woman). Pianist Larry Knechtel had been one of the most active Los Angeles sessioneers since the 1960s.
While none of those musicians had been on Lonesome Picker, Stewart did again use a couple of mainstays from the sessions for his Warners debut, including Russ Kunkel, the singer-songwriter session drummer of the 1970s, who played on records by Carole King, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and Carly Simon. Also returning from Lonesome Picker was top steel guitarist Buddy Emmons, and (on guitar and vocals) John's brother Michael, who also worked in the producer's chair during John's Warners stint. A few other session aces familiar to those who routinely scan the small print of 1960s and 1970s records also guested, including guitarist Mike Deasy, percussionist Billy Mundi, and (on harmonica and vocals) Henry Diltz, who had been in the Modern Folk Quartet during the '60s folk revival, but eventually became more known as one of the foremost rock album sleeve photographers. And John's wife Buffy Ford was one of the singers whose talents were frequently tapped for an album that was heavy on backup vocal arrangements.
With songs that referred to Kansas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Wyoming, and Oklahoma at various points, the album couldn't help but get pegged as reflecting a particularly American rural landscape. "I, like John Denver, tend to write about how I would like things to be, and how they once were in America -- rather than how they are now," Stewart observed in the British magazine ZigZag. "'Kansas Rain' [on Sunstorm] is representative of how things are now, and there are parts of America where 'July, You're a Woman' [which John had recorded on each of his first two post-Kingston Trio albums] is a reality -- places like the San Joaquin Valley...the pickup trucks, the way the people live -- I really love that part of America. It's the cities I can't tolerate." As to the specific musical source of "Arkansas Breakout," perhaps the best of his state-specific songs on Sunstorm, Stewart adds, "I stole the shape from the Rolling Stones' 'Gimme Shelter.'"
Certainly the most unusual track on Sunstorm was "An Account of Haley's Comet," which features narration by Stewart's father, with his son and backing vocalists singing the refrain. Explains John, "In the same evolutionary chain as 'Mother Country' [a song from Stewart's 1969 album California Bloodlines that had also used spoken narration], my father recounted this story of when he saw Haley's Comet in Kentucky in the early 1900s. His voice was so authentic and contained the fear and apprehension of time, that I had to use him as the narrator."
Lonesome Picker Rides Again, failed to set the charts alight. It
Stewart's association with Warner Brothers, and he would spend the rest
of the 1970s with RCA and then RSO. It wasn't until 1979 that he
made his commercial breakthrough as a solo artist, with the Top Ten
Away Dream Babies, its Top Ten single "Gold," and the hit follow-up
singles "Midnight Wind" and "Lost Her in the Sun." His Warner Brothers
period has been a little lost in the shuffle, overshadowed by both his
more critically-recognized earlier Capitol albums and his
late-'70s releases. Both Sunstorm and The Lonesome Picker
Again were important documents, however, of his journey from folk
star to a distinctive voice in the 1970s singer-songwriting movement.
-- Richie Unterberger
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